Columbia Polices Community Outreach Unit now fully staffed

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COLUMBIA - Columbia Police Department's Community Outreach Unit went into full effect Wednesday as officers work to improve relationships with the community.

Meet Officer Anthony and Officer Castile

Officer Gamal Castile (left) joins Officer Justin Anthony (right) 

It's not everyday you see police officers knocking on the doors of local residents, but that was the case Wednesday for officers in CPD's Community Outreach Unit.

Knock after knock, walking to door after door, was the path these officers took to get to know members of the community. 

It was more than just a quick hello, these officers spent time with locals to get to know them. 

"It's important we understand the needs of the community and in order to do that we need to get to know our community," Officer Justin Anthony said.

Battling the communication barrier

Sgt. Michael Hestir said in light of what happened in Ferguson, there can be a negative stigma associated with police officers that they want to work through.

"People are fed a constant and steady stream that police are bad through stories and accounts and that creates a bias," he said. "So when I get out of my car, no matter what my intent is, they may already look at me as an enemy."

What the unit is focused on 

The unit was kick-started back in October of 2015. The concept began around three years ago to target "hot spot" areas for crime during the summer months.

CPD added two new officers to the team in February, but officials felt that wasn't enough to effectively patrol the entire city. Now, the unit consists of six officers and one sergeant.

The team's main priority is to break down communication barriers with the public.

Hestir said, ideally, the team will be able to learn more about the communities needs and be able to enhance police performance.

"By people meeting us one on one, conversing with us, and having the chance to sit down they realize we're just people trying to do a very difficult job," he said. "It's really just lowered those barriers to communication that have existed."

Success so far

Officers are also working toward decreasing violence and property crimes and they've reported they've already seen a decrease since the program's beginning stages last year.

Hestir said the program has been off to a good start.

"We've received a lot of positive feedback from people in the neighborhoods," he said.

 Local feedback

One Columbia resident liked that the officers were reaching out but said he wished the unit could have been formed sooner.

"Why start now? When this could of happened years ago and maybe everything would've been better in our community," Christopher Kennedy said. 

Officers said there is still work to be done.

"We're still trying to figure out the best ways to address root causes of problems in the neighborhood," said Hestir. "We've increased the quality of life in the neighborhood just by listening to the concerns of the neighborhood."

Meet the team with Sgt. Michael Hestir

Officers for North Columbia:

-Officer Parker and Officer Lenger

Officers for East Columbia

-Officer Rodriquez and Officer Shull

Officers for Central Columbia:

-Officer Anthony and Officer Castile

What's next

CPD hopes to continue to expand this program, but it will depend on its success.
"The citizen feedback will drive our future as opposed to a police plan," Hestir said.
Ideally, officers hope the unit will grow within the next year.